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The vacation rental saga, unleashed by the neighbors of a single-family home steps from Ryan Field on Ashland Avenue, continued on May 28 with a new proposed ordinance that would treat a vacation rental as a subset of bed-and-breakfast establishments under the City’s zoning code. The new law would add additional requirements, including an annual update and health department oversight. The saga is not over, because Council members voted to hold the ordinance at the Planning and Development Committee level for further tweaks.

The Proposed Ordinance

Under the proposed ordinance, any homeowner wishing to rent his or her home as a temporary vacation rental would be required to submit an application and go through the zoning board of appeals (ZBA) process. The annual application, and presumably the annual fee, will apply whether a homeowner rents a room two nights per year or 300 nights. Exceptions are made when a homeowner sells to a new owner but remains in the property temporarily under a leaseback agreement, when a homeowner must find temporary accommodations because of renovation or destruction, or due to a “hardship” which is not defined in the ordinance.

While the new law would create a separate zoning category, the City’s Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar said that the concept of “grandfathering” in uses that existed before a change in zoning would not apply to this zoning change. “I’m of the view, in this type of situation, transient rentals [are] always in a state of somewhat flux. … Each rental is a new act and a new transaction,” he said. The ordinance will therefore apply to the Ashland Avenue property at issue, he said, “after the effective date.”

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, a practicing attorney, appeared unconvinced. “Will this apply to existing properties that are already operating [as vacation rentals]?” he asked. “I want to be sure that’s the answer,” he added, saying that if Mr. Farrar has not had time to explore the answer fully he should take that time.

“I want to be 100% sure, not 99.9% sure” that properties will not be grandfathered in under the traditional interpretation of changes to use in zoning ordinances and that the City can enforce the new law, said Ald. Wilson.

Mr. Farrar said he was confident the new law could be enforced.

Given the estimated number of properties currently offering rooms for rent on at least an occasional basis, Council predicted a flood of applications at the zoning board of appeals (ZBA). “Grant, are we going to consider a new process at the ZBA for this?” asked Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. The special use process takes months, she added. “I’m thinking that a lot of people probably are going to flood the ZBA with appeals.”

Implementation, administration and enforcement of the new ordinance will require “nimble and nuanced thinking by staff,” said Mr. Farrar. “The docket of ZBA will be full… there’s an issue here, beyond the four corners of the ordinance. It will be challenging. Very challenging,” he said.

“I’m wondering if maybe we shouldn’t consider a subcommittee of the ZBA just for vacation rentals,” said Ald. Rainey. “I don’t even know if we can call this a special use if we make people come in every year, because that’s not how a special use works,” she added. She suggested instead treating vacation rentals like the City treats sidewalk cafés – a one-time review by Council and then an automatic renewal every year, provided there are no problems.

“We have no idea how many there are,” said Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, the City never hears about them “unless there are complaints.”

Lingering Concerns

The neighbors near the proposed vacation rental that generated the complaints that led to the current seven-month effort to create the new vacation rental regulation said they still had problems with the proposal. Maureen O’Donnell, speaking for the neighbors, told the committee that the lawyers in her group “remain very concerned about” a provision in the proposed ordinance that allows vacation rental owners to be off-site during rental period. “Out of sight, out of mind,” she said, adding, “we just want these holes plugged.”

Others spoke against the proposed new regime. Howard Handler, government affairs director of the Northshore Barrington Association of Realtors, likened the ordinance to using “a sledgehammer to pound a nail.” The ordinance was written to address one single property on Ashland Avenue, he said. Its application will have a far greater impact on property owners who rent once or twice a year than on those who rent regularly, he said, because the burden can be spread out over numerous rentals for the frequent renter. Those burdens include subjecting a home to City inspection and all that goes along with that, providing floor plans to the ZBA, keying properties from the outside, “even providing soap,” he said.

John Fell, an Evanston resident who uses his property as a vacation rental, called the proposed ordinance “really unfair.”

“I have a vacation rental” and have never had any problems or complaints, he said. He acknowledged that the residents on Ashland Avenue say they have had problems, but decried the “far reaching ordinance that reaches people like me.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she had two problems with the ordinance. First, she said, there should be a requirement that the home owner’s phone number be posted at the property. Second, she called for a one-time exception to the law. “If someone wants to do this once,” she said, there are a lot of bureaucratic hoops to jump through. She also called for an extended effective date to allow the ZBA time to prepare for the flood of applications.

“I am hearing that you want tweaks,” said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz. He suggested holding the ordinance in committee until June 10 while staff explored treating vacation rentals like sidewalk cafes and adding elements